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I was a proofreader once, at a publishing house, back in the days when we worked with galleys, which were not ships but a last chance to check pages, to check the deck and see if there were any mistakes which could be spotted, before book went to press, machines bringing the paper close to the bits of branding type, a wedding of perfection, a ceremonial execution. I did a fairly fine job, a Tinker Bell catching errors-possible in large books; but you lose your mind when you are/must be forever the queen of no mistakes, and I after several years of this headed back to England, which I loved as much as Tinker Bell loved Peter.
And there I was, with one of the most famous older men in England. (I will explain how this happened, later.)
I thought he’d fallen in love with American me, but I wasn’t sure; his house would be almost mine this week and next week while he was gone, off to record more music in London.
But nothing ever was mine. The corrected galleys had almost been mine; but I hadn’t written the manuscripts, now had I? I’d only thrown myself like a desperate woman at mistakes. The books were someone else’s proud possession, achievement.
He was a famous musician, about to travel. I’d be taking care of his house, but it wasn’t mine, was it? And if he was so proud of me, why wasn’t I going? No – it was his trip, his house, his plans.
On the old estate there was a solarium, to make plants happy, all in walls of glass, but he’d not trusted me to know how to water the plants. He’d written down for me how many times a week I was to water the plants: even which days of the week.
It was a Monday and a Wednesday, I think. Or did the elevator repairman arrive on Monday and he had the code for the gates, but Wednesday someone was coming out to clear brush in the gardens and I needed to be there to let him in? Something Monday-Wednesday was in my brain, which I was supposed to remember. I should have written it down.
I’m going to take three scarves, he said, gently and distantly, as if he was telling a cat it was good, and he knew it couldn’t understand a word he said. That way if I change my mind I can wear another.
You could also get rid of a few of those long thin cashmere ridiculous scarves, I said. You look handsome enough without them.
Some women say they can’t stand that I wear patterned ones, he said. He leaned a tiny bit closer. His eyes were looking directly into mine the way they finally did if I talked around him in circles for a bit. (To surprise him was to engage him. Most people said yes to everything he said.)
Some said I mocked him. But without my mockery he wouldn’t listen; he’d fade off completely.
I was younger, American, thus doubtful. It was as if shined his shoes, with each of my bright tart remarks.
Did I love him? His house was stutteringly beautiful. He had a history list of girlfriends like the rolls of the dead after a well-known war.
I was now, before his departure, looking around for something to drink; but drinks were distant, not at all in the main parts of the house. Everything alcoholic was tucked away in the butler’s pantry, the rum with its goldenish labels near the boxes of rosemary flatbread, the hops for making beer in burlap sacks just down the steps from the edge of the last pantry cupboard. The barrels for making beer were far, far downstairs, in mysterious mustiness. He didn’t keep anything in the main houses. Everything had its place; and in truth, liquor is best kept distant.
It’s sour, isn’t it, a gin tonic, I said. I want something bitter.
At least you don’t need to worry about driving, he said. I do. So let’s not.
You’ve forgotten, I said. You’re taking the train.
Oh yes, he said, and brightened. Thank you. A train. Yes. A train for me.
Your train is leaving in one hour and twenty minutes, I said. You’re going to be leaving your car. At the station.
Yes, he said, very carefully, in his almost schoolteacherish way, more than adorable, what I loved most about him; he made me feel I was about to write a wonderful paper, far too good and goof for a classroom. I was a writer, which meant, like musicians, I lived by charm and lyric abilities, with no real social security whatsoever: a wandering puppet.
But now he leaned forward, as if to tell me I’d been daydreaming in class, and he, the teacher, twenty years older, needed to correct me. I look up. I feel my lips moving, some too-late attempt at some Latin conjugation; or a kiss. But he draws back, looks away.
The tuba player will be here sometime in the afternoon, I think, he says. He’ll be here when I get back.
We’ll see, I say, and also look away. They usually turn up late. I was always treated coldly if the musicians turned up, days or hours, late: as if it was somehow my fault.
The last time he was here he had a Genuflection case, he now said, a mild dreamy awe filling his face.
I don’t know what that is, I say.
Oh, you wouldn’t, he said. He blinked, several times. A Genuflection case is very special. Handmade. It’s very pure. Not many have it. It’s – almost the Dior of cases.
It’s good, then, I said, sounding, as I often did with him, like a good student, testing the teacher’s wits.
It’s very good, he said. It means you’re very serious about what you’re doing. And considering he is charging what he is, that’s a very good thing. He should be working and recording every day. In the South rooms. I want you to let me know if he is not. So I won’t let him be here again. He claims his house is under three feet of water in Bonn.
Oh, it’s an assignment, I said. Not a friend.
All of being a musician is an assignment, he said. I’m giving you the assignment of watching my house. I hope that’s an honor. Of some sort.
I don’t mind, I said.
But of course I did. How long would I be Bluebeard’s current favorite? I tried to read predictions in the faces of his staff; to see if they were cooling toward me and I should plot my escape. When they laughed when I laughed I felt as if I might be settling into comfort; and he seemed to like sex with me. But I was American, which meant I really couldn’t be trusted to either understand or appreciate Stilton cheese; additionally, being American, I couldn’t be trusted not eat it all up when no one was around. (We’d thrown tea in a harbor, we Americans; we’d shown indifference to good tea, we’d let fish who didn’t care about tea have that tea.) The help, the staff, dreaded I might thoroughly and rebelliously suddenly outwit them: I was a cat who’d wandered in, American, who could take down all their airs and pomposities one by one. They might also have smelled a whiff of writer about me: the clever one who laid low. They’d of course made a game of talking over my head for many months, almost a year now, to see if I was outwittable, spookable. This tension had made me raw.
Don’t worry, he’s quiet, he said suddenly. The tuba player. You won’t have to be his servant. And you’re not my servant.
I looked, I hope, sharply at him: to let him know I didn’t really believe that. I was smart, or at least I must hope I was smart. The odds of my staying on forever: almost none. If I was truly who he adored, I would probably be traveling with him, wouldn’t I?
But that I didn’t have the courage to say. But I almost did. I was close. I almost exceeded muteness. Though he was twenty years older, and I was not that young, he was – really, terribly handsome.
Rebecca Pyle, a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer whose work also appears in Wisconsin Review, Litro UK, National Poetry Review, Chattahoochee Review, Honest Ulsterman, Guesthouse, Map Literary, and elsewhere, has work forthcoming in Posit, Gargoyle magazine, Terrain. org, and Common Ground Review. She's a visual artist, also; images of her oil paintings are in many art/lit journals, or, sometimes, on their covers. (See rebeccapyleartist.com.)